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Increasing numbers of refugees cross into Hungary

01 April 2022

Most arrivals are families with children

Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary

Refugees wait at the border post between Vulytsya Zelena, in Ukraine, and Tiszabecs, in Hungary

Refugees wait at the border post between Vulytsya Zelena, in Ukraine, and Tiszabecs, in Hungary

THE UNHCR, in its latest situation report, says that 359,197 refugees fleeing Ukraine have crossed Hungary’s eastern border: about ten per cent of those displaced internationally since Russia invaded on 24 February. The figure, however, exceeds 500,000 when “secondary” entrants from Romania and Moldova are included.

Most of them pass on through rapidly to countries further west. A small but growing number (estimated at one in four by the Hungarian government) find themselves remaining for longer as a result either of choice or circumstance. Those who do remain tend to belong to vulnerable groups: Roma, the sick, and those lacking international connections.

“One family arrived here in a dreadful condition,” a local Lutheran pastor, the Revd Géza Laborczi, told me in his office in the county town of Nyíregyháza, in north-east Hungary (41 miles from the Ukrainian border) on Sunday. “The mother and children had seen the father killed in front of them. The mother needed urgent help. We managed to get her into a psychiatric hospital here quickly, and she stabilised after a week, but the situation is still delicate.”

Existing cross-border networks of church and charity organisations are valuable. “Getting supplies into Ukraine can be hard because of border formalities. However, getting information out is easy: we usually know who is coming, and what their needs are a day before they arrive,” another of the town’s Lutheran pastors, the Revd Erzsébet Molnár, says.

Most arrivals are family groups of a mother plus school-age children, but some are younger. “I’ve seen mothers arrive on foot, carrying children just a few days old —and having had to stand outside in the cold for eight or ten hours,” Ms Molnár says. All six border stations are now open 24 hours. People queue through the night when temperatures sometimes fall below zero.

“Some things are getting better as the weather warms up, but other problems continue, especially the lack of medical supplies on the Ukrainian side . . . basic things like pain killers and antibiotics. That long wait is so much harder if mothers have sick children they can’t help, or who are sick themselves,” Ms Molnár explains.

Nadiya and Yelysaveta are a mother and teenage daughter from Kyiv, who have made it across the border. We met on Monday in their temporary accommodation in Nyíregyháza, a home for vulnerable families managed by the Lutheran Diaconal service Oltalom.

They have left the war zone, but it has not left them. Yelysveta is in her first year at university, studying aviation logistics. She continues to participate in her university’s programmes online, in virtual classes, together with friends who log in from towns in Ukraine which are being shelled.

Our short conversation is interrupted twice: first, when both women break down in tears at the mention of loved ones still in Ukraine, and, second, when Nadiya jumps and clutches her chest fearfully. The noise of the family centre’s door-alarm (accidentally triggered) too much resembles the warning siren in Kyiv.

Asked about her personal hopes for the future, Yelyseveta responds simply, “To have peace in my country and my city.”

Yelysevet and Nadiya lack foreign connections, and are unsure about their future direction. Emigration to Canada or the United States, more than Britain, is a preferred but indefinite option: a common preference for Ukrainians who speak at least some English. This reflects the strength of historic Ukrainian diaspora networks and institutions in North America, seen as well placed to provide a supportive infrastructure for vulnerable arrivals. Reasons can, however, be more complex.

“Some people want to put an ocean between themselves and the war,” the Budapest-based director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Hungary, Fr Szabolcs Sajgó SJ, told me last week. “Partly that’s psychological — literally, putting distance between themselves and their experience. However, it’s also practical. Some worry Putin’s plans for dominance in Europe don’t stop with Ukraine; they’d feel safer further away.”

Evangelical Lutheran Church in HungaryRefugees accommodated in church housing in Tótkomlós

Helping refugees to recover a sense of safety is a priority for aid workers in Nyíregyháza and Budapest alike.

“It sounds strange, given how far they’ve travelled, but, after they get here safe, and start to feel, some families don’t want to step outside the accommodation. Even visiting the small shop, 500 metres down the street, can feel like a huge step for them. After three weeks, one family just felt brave enough to take the bus into town,” the manager of Oltalom’s family centre on the edge of Nyíregyháza, Erika Kemenes, says.

“We try and give people the right mixture of support and privacy. There’s a communal dining-room, but people can take food to their accommodation instead, if they don’t feel able to be around others. We also gently try and get them to think about the future. It is too early for some though — we don’t want them to feel pressure.”

According to Fr Sajgó, “The distinctive thing we, as Christians, can do for these refugees is caring for them spiritually. I mean that broadly: prayer with people who want it, of course, but also a wider care for their mental health, emotional well-being, and sense of purpose — not just physical and financial needs.”

Fr Sajgó’s priority has been to get neutral spaces for prayer and reflections set up at refugee arrival points and overnight reception facilities administered by the state and voluntary agencies. “People need somewhere quite in the middle of all this: somewhere they can just feel safe, think more clearly, and begin to process their experience.”

HIAA woman helping to unload aid for Hungarian InterchurchAid in Lviv

Hungarian Interchurch Aid (HIA) — Christian Aid’s local ACT alliance partner — provides material help and mental-health support to people displaced by the fighting both in Hungary and inside Ukraine. Active in Ukraine for 24 years, HIA has principal field-offices in both Transcarpathia and Lviv, besides local partners in central and east Ukraine.

“Expert psycho-social support matters, but help starts with quite basic things, like providing a pile of cuddly toys for children when they reach the refugee reception centre in Lviv,” says a relief-worker with HIA, Lóránt Fabiny. “A local Catholic priest we work with also has some horses that the children can pet — that really helps, too.”

Children also give Mr Fabiny hope for Ukraine’s future. “On a recent trip to Lviv, I met this groups of kids, and asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were some expected answers: civil servant, doctor, businessman. However, one little girl said something different: ‘I want to be an architect, so I can help rebuild our cities after the war.’”

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